When the Sanctuary Burned

I am co-facilitating a small group in my church during Advent. Tonight we met online and discussed one of my favorite passages from Isaiah 40, “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.” We read the whole passage, verses 1-8, but I never made it past the first verse in my heart. 

“Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.”

Around 5 AM this past Saturday morning alarm bells hang out to the New York City Fire Department. There was a fire at the corner of 48th East and 7th St. The fire department was on the scene three minutes later, but it was too late to save the beautiful sanctuary of Middle Collegiate Church. This 128 years old church, the oldest continuously active church in the United States, is led by the fierce and faithful Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis. This church has meant a great deal to many of us in the progressive faith movement. Across the country, we can tell stories of our visits to Middle Collegiate Church. We remember watching services online in their beautiful sanctuary. We remember attending Revolutionary Love, a conference aimed at reshaping the prophetic imagination of the progressive faith movement. That space has been a powerful platform for launching ministries of love and justice for so many years.

“Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.”

I was up early that morning as my phone flooded with texts from colleagues and videos of the sanctuary on fire. I felt paralyzed by the heartbreak that I felt for Jacqui, for her beautiful congregation, and for all of us who held that place as a symbol of hope for a better future. We do not need more pain this year. We do not need more struggle. We do not need more loss. But here we are being reminded once more that “from dust we have come, and to dust we shall return.”

Even as the remaining flames of the sanctuary continued to burn, the people of Middle Collegiate Church were already offering the world a message of resurrection and hope. They will rebuild, with our help. While the sanctuary may be gone, the church is stronger than ever. Nothing can stop revolutionary love.

“Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.”

I’m inspired by their bravery and courage. But I also deeply appreciate what Jacqui said in her message on Sunday. Loss like this in a year that has been defined by pain and promise, breaks your heart. It makes you angry. It wears you down. From dust we have come, and to dust we shall return, yes. But also from dust, we rise!

“Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.”

Life, death, life again. It’s the sacred pattern that weaves the world together. It breaks us and mends us, rebuilding us from the ashes into something entirely new, more beautiful for having been broken. 

This Advent is full of grief, heartbreak and hope for so many of us. But the passage in Isaiah goes on to say “Prepare a way for the Lord.” Ready yourself for Hope’s transformation. The story never ends in the ash heap. Despite it all, or because of it, together we rise. 


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